Buz Sawyer volume 4: Zazarof’s Revenge


By Roy Crane, with Henry G. “Hank” Schlensker & Edwin Granberry (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-975-2 (HB)

Modern comics evolved from newspaper strips: pictorial features that were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous. Hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as a weapon to secure sales and increase circulation, strips seemed to find their only opposition in blinkered local editors who often resented the low brow art form, which cut into potential ad space and regularly drew complaint letters from cranks…

It’s virtually impossible for us today to understand the overwhelming allure and power of the comic strip – especially from the Great Depression to the end of the 1950s. With limited television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comics sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were universally enjoyed recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of graphic sagas and humorous episodes.

From the start comedy was king; hence our terms “Funnies” and “Comics”. From these jest and stunt beginnings – blending silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and vaudeville antics – came an entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting in April 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic, gag-a-day strip which evolved into a globe-girdling adventure serial. For years, Crane spun addictive high-quality pictorial yarns – until his introduction of moody swashbuckler Captain Easy ushered in the age of adventure strips with the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

This led to a Sunday colour page which was possibly the most compelling and visually imaginative of the entire Golden Age of Newspaper strips (see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volumes 1-4). Improving almost minute by minute, it benefited from Crane’s relentless quest for perfection. His fabulously imaginative compositional masterpieces attained a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The influence of his pages can be seen in the works of near-contemporaries like Hergé, giants-in-waiting such as Charles Schulz or comic book masters Alex Toth, John Severin and many more.

The material was obviously as much fun to make as to read. In fact, Crane’s cited reason for surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was NEA/United Features Syndicate’s abrupt and arbitrary diktat that all strips would henceforward be produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate their being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated.

They just didn’t lift the artist any more so he stopped making them. At the height of his powers, Crane walked away from the astounding Captain Easy Sunday page; concentrating on the daily feature until his contract expired in 1943 whereupon he left United Features: lured away by that grandee of strip poachers William Randolph Hearst.

The result was an aviator strip set in then-ongoing World War II: Buz Sawyer.

Where Wash Tubbs was a brave but largely comedic Lothario and his pal Easy a surly, tight-lipped he-man, John Singer “Buz” Sawyer was a joyous amalgam of both: a handsome, big-hearted, affable country-boy who went to war because his country needed him…

Buz was a fun-loving, skirt-chasing, musically-inclined pilot daily risking his life with his devoted gunner Rosco Sweeney: a bluff, brave ordinary Joe – and one of the most effective comedy foils ever created.

The wartime strip was – and remains – a marvel of authenticity: portraying not just action and drama of the locale and situation but crucially also capturing the quiet, dull hours of training, routine and desperate larks between the serious business of killing and staying alive. When the war ended the action-loving duo – plus fellow pilot/girl-chasing competitor Chili Harrison – all went looking for work that satisfied their thirst for action and adventure…

Crane had mastered popular entertainment tastes, blending adventure with drama and sophisticated soap opera, all leavened with raucous comedy in a seamless procession of unmissable daily episodes. He and his team of assistants – which over decades comprised co-writers Ed “Doc” Granberry, Clark Haas and Al Wenzel, and artists Hank Schlensker, Joel King, Ralph Lane, Dan Heilman, Hi Mankin & Bill Wright – soldiered on under relentless deadline pressure, producing an authentic and exotic funny romantic thriller rendered in his stark signature style as well as a prerequisite full-colour Sunday page.

This fourth stout and sturdy hardcover edition is a mostly monochrome tome re-presenting more magnificent strip shenanigans starring a dynamic All-American good guy, but now Buz is just another fading war hero: albeit admittedly a globetrotting, troubleshooting one and a newlywed husband to boot.

Having – after much kerfuffle, procrastination, intrigue, bloodshed, sexy skulduggery and delay – finally married extremely understanding childhood sweetheart Christy Jameson, our clean-cut boy-next-door then dragged her into his regularly perilous and frequently lethal working world as prime problem-solver for Frontier Oil: a company with fingers in many international pies and one most modern readers will find hard to consider “the Good Guys”…

These strips – made in collaboration with Granberry & Hank Schlensker – cover the societally turbulent period spanning July 1949 to June 1952, as America leaned hard into its dreams of Exceptionalism and enjoyed domestic boom times while embracing it’s self-appointed role as the World’s Policeman. Crane and his creative laboured long, hard, often acrimonious hours to produce each daily strip; all beguilingly rendered in black-&-white through Crane’s masterly techniques employing line art and craftint (a tricky mechanical monochrome patterning effect which added greys and halftones to produce miraculous depths and moods to the superb base drawing) but the toll was heavy on personnel and feelings.

Before the ten self-contained tales here kick off, heavily-illustrated preliminary prose piece ‘The Three of Us are a Team’ (‘remarks at the New York Banshee Society’ from transcripts donated to Syracuse University) revisits Crane’s acceptance speech on winning the 1961 Silver Lady Award as determined by a collation of contemporary communications executives. Effusive and reminiscent, it sees him give his partners all the credit for the hard work in crafting the feature…

Buz Sawyer began on November 1st 1943 and ran until 1989. Crane officially retired with the April 21st 1977 episode (dying on July 7th) while it continued under Granberry, Schlensker, Haas, Wenzel and John Celardo until cancelation on October 7th 1989.

The story resumes with an example of contemporary trends…

Chimpanzees were becoming a popular story addition for most media as the 1940s ended (just look at movies or comic books) and ‘Monkey Business’ finds our happy couple back in the USA after an African honeymoon (of sorts) which left the them owners of a young chimp named Junior

Anticipating decades of future sitcoms, the tale details how Junior plays up during a critical dinner party/holiday weekend held by Sawyer’s boss Colonel Harrison but the resulting debacle at a swish soiree on Harrison’s palatial estate fails to impress potential business partner Mr Tidley Bragg. A cheeky excuse for manic screwball comedy and social gaffes, the chaos generates explosive hilarity, humiliation and Buz’s sacking before fate intervenes to show everyone that Junior was a boisterous blessing in disguise…

Swiftly rehired, Buz heads south, encountering ‘Revolution’ (September 19th 1949 – January 18th 1950) in a Central American republic. Frontier Oil was seeking an oil concession, but apparently their agent – Barstain – had played a double game. Before long, Buz is using his war experiences to lead a counter revolution to save democracy…

January 20th- June 17th offers a grimly chilling change of pace as ‘Buz Alone’ sees Christy and her husband on a well-earned vacation at a Florida honeymoon cottage. Tragically, danger is never far from them, and the brief idyll is shattered after a nature-watching boat trip leaves them stranded on a sandbar with no food, water, shelter or prospect of rescue.

A true champion, Buz survives a gruelling swim to the mainland and returns in a seaplane only to find three men on the sandbar and no trace of Christy. When he gets agitated, he’s accused of making it all up and – if she ever existed – doing away with the woman…

Beaten up when he tries to search their boat, Buz is left to pick up the pieces and track down Christy. In his hunger for clues, he is manipulated by a woman seeking a new husband – and someone to remove her current one – before eventually clashing with vengeful old enemy Harry Sparrow. At no time does he ever get near his missing better half…

While he flounders, a comely, capable lady with no memory is picked up on the mainland before losing herself amidst the sleazy local underworld. With the police now assisting, Buz sets out on the fresh trail, aided by trusty pal Sweeney. After more trauma and tribulation, Christy is found, but it’s not the girl Buz married yet – not by a long shot…

A return to lighter intrigue and enterprise comes when spoiled debutante ‘Diana’ (June 19th – November 24th) makes Daddy find her a job. Unluckily for Buz, Remington Chase is a bigwig at Frontier and his bored hellion of a daughter likes the idea of being Sawyer’s secretary – or at least the idea of Sawyer…

Even debonair Chili Harrison can’t sway her aim and when Buz “escapes” into work – despatched to Iron Curtain nation Sovmania just when he and Christy began looking at homes to buy – Miss Chase infuriatingly follows. Negotiating with the Soviets is tricky enough, but when it’s a US corporation demanding the communists hand back wells and refineries they illegally annexed and expropriated, Sawyer knows he can’t win and may end up mysteriously deceased. It’s no surprise to find Diana draws attention and danger like a magnet, but her response when the oppressors decide to arrest them is a life-changing revelation.

Spectacular spy games give way to a lighter interlude when Buz reunites with Christy and they babysit a parrot named ‘William Shakespeare’ (November 24th 1950-January 6th 1951). The beloved baby of a poetry professor, with an astounding talent for repeating what he hears, the bird proves to be even more trouble that their chimp was…

Clearly qualified in policing difficult customers, Buz is then assigned to locate a wandering landowner with 6,000 prime acres to lease. ‘Wish Jones’ (January 8th to April 19th) is old, homely, rich, romantic, suggestible and (suddenly) married to exotic dancer Taffy Fawn. However, he hasn’t signed the contracts Frontier needs, leaving Buz playing catch across all the love nests of the South Pacific. The fixer’s greatest asset is Taffy herself, who never thought wedded bliss and matchless wealth included so much sand, birds or bugs. His biggest problem is that even desert island paradises have crooks, radios and newspapers…

Another episode of animal husbandry catastrophes – this time a dachshund and a voracious baby heron – leads implausibly to a sojourn in ‘Alaska’ (26th April – August 22nd) with Sawyer undercover as John Singer.

While seeking a geologist’s killers, he’s also acting as courier for the Government in a serious and solid spy escapade worthy of Alfred Hitchcock with abductions, misreported deaths, murderous sailors, devious twins, fake relatives and hidden uranium reserves all in play, with Buz’s survival skills pushed to the limit before his mission is accomplished.

In dire need of relaxation, the reunited Mr & Mrs Sawyer trust to fate and pluck a name out of an atlas for a vacation. They land in a lakeside resort boasting peace and quiet but dreary ‘Doldrums’ (August 23rd – September 29th) is soon a pandemonium of envy and excitement as bored couples seek to spice up their passionless lives by emulating the infamous, glamorous newcomers…

Eponymous epic ‘Zazarof’s Revenge’ spans October 1st 1951-January 10th 1952, opening with a global sabotage campaign against Frontier, leading Buz to Switzerland where there’s no doubt of mystery man Igor Zazarof’s guilt, but apparently no way to find or face him.

Ultimately, persistence and charm break down the villain’s obvious pawn Neri, whilst all attempts to bribe, frame, frighten or kill the American fail, leading to an extended and brutal duel to the death on a mountain peak as the only way to deal with Sawyer…

We conclude for now with home-grown bad men ‘The Hawks Boys’ (January 10th – June 19th) terrorising and sabotaging a Frontier installation in Utah. As assault escalates to murder, Buz discovers why the Hawks’ – already well-paid for the oil rights to their land – are doing everything they can to force the company to pull out. What could be worth more than oil and what won’t they do to keep their secret?

Completing this vivid vintage venture is a wry glimpse of Crane’s early days. With text written by Jeet Heer, ‘A Cartoonist’s Travels’ offers a brief gallery of cartoons about bums, hoboes, tramps and voyagers, with the artist drawing upon his own youthful experiences as an itinerant bindlestiff and drifter…

This a sublime slice of compelling comics wonder is an ideal way to discover or reconnect with Crane’s second magnum opus. Bold, daring, funny and astonishingly enthralling, these episodic exploits influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. The series ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: always delivering comics tale-telling unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible. Try it and see for yourself.
Buz Sawyer: Zazarof’s Revenge © 2016 Fantagraphics Books. All Buz Sawyer strips © 2016 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

The Boxer – the True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft


By Reinhardt Kleist; translated by Michael Waaler (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-906838-77-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

Multi-award-winning German illustrator, designer, author, cartoonist and comics maker Reinhard Kleist (Berlinoir; Steeplechase; Das Grauen im Gemäuer) has been working in the industry since 1994: setting up a cooperative studio/atelier and beginning his professional career with graphic biography Lovecraft, and supernal dramas Minna, Das Festmahl, and Abenteuer eines Weichenstellers while still a student in Münster.

He has constantly explored and gratified his fascination with notable individuals who have overcome stacked odds and inner darkness in stellar works such as Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness; Elvis – An Illustrated Biography; Castro; An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusaf Omar and Nick Cave: Mercy on Me.

In 2011 he again turned to boxing for inspiration, adapting a Holocaust biography written by the son of a survivor of the death camps. Hertzko/Herschel “Harry” Haft might be regarded amongst the more noteworthy of those benighted souls: a ruthlessly determined individual who overcame every iteration of horror and privation, using his fists and low cunning.

His life was first recounted in 2006 by his son Alan Scott Haft in prose biography Harry Haft: Auschwitz Survivor, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, and as well as the graphic novel under review here, you can absorb the tale in filmic form in Barry Levinson’s movie adaptation The Survivor.

Delivered in stark monochrome, Kleist’s compelling and uncompromising interpretation opens with the protagonist a humble grocer in America, trying to relate to his young son. Harry is a hard man to relate to, but in a moment of contrition he promises to one day share with his boy what made him that way.

Alan waited another forty years to hear the truth and turned it into a narrative for everyone…

The story proper opens in 1939, in the Polish town of Belchatow. Since the Germans came, the Jewish Haft family have become smugglers, and 14-year old Hertzko thinks himself invincible.

His father had sold fruit and veg but found it increasingly difficult to support a wife and eight children. When he died, the family splintered and only Hertzko and brothers Aria and Peretz stayed with their mother. When the invasion took hold, their illicit activities made them all targets, but amidst daily outrages, he found opportunity for love and was betrothed to Leah Pablanski, daughter of the receiver of all the contraband he shifted across the Nazis’ new borders…

When Hertzko was transported to his first labour camp, seeing Leah again one day was the dream that kept him going. Barely literate but strong and determined he had a gift for being useful and, despite toiling in the most horrific circumstances and being present for every atrocity of the regime, he endured – especially after his smuggling experience made him an essential tool of one particular guard officer who was methodically enriching himself at the prisoners’ expense…

Moved from camp to camp as a slave labourer, Hertzko eventually arrived in Jaworzno camp and was reunited with his brother Peretz. Here his sponsor found him less egregious duties. All he had to do was fight other prisoners in Sunday exhibition matches for the officers. Haft had never boxed before, but would do anything for better conditions and what passed for “guaranteed” survival. What he did there remained with him for the rest of his life…

Despite his resilience and adaptability, Haft always found himself at the mercy of superior and more ruthless forces. As the Allies slowly pushed the Nazis back on all fronts, he was left to the “death marches” the SS instigated to empty the camps and hide evidence of their industrialised slaughter factories. Over and again, Haft dodged certain death and committed more sins until finally captured by American troops. Soon his underworld experience was being exploited by the GIs as Hertzko ran a bordello for the soldiers. When Peretz resurfaced, Haft finally had time and enough money to go looking for Leah. That trail led ultimately to America.

While in US-occupied Straubing, Haft had won a boxing competition organised by the Army, and was – after further machinations – allowed to emigrate in 1946. He was 23 years old…

The second half of Haft’s life began in the New World. He still wanted Leah and decided fame would be the key. The fight game in America was popular but increasingly under the control of organized crime. Nevertheless, Haft – now calling himself “Hershel” and “Harry” – pursued his chosen path with relentless zeal.

Overcoming every administrative obstacle, he found a manager, learned how to actually box rather than fight and kept on winning.

The equation was simple. Leah was here somewhere. If he could get his picture in the papers or newsreels or even on this new television thing, she would see him and get in touch. Sadly, it only brought him to the attention of mobsters. After his moment of glory fighting Rocky Marciano in 1949, Haft learned how his chosen world really worked…

Walking away, he married a neighbour’s daughter in November and opened a grocery store in Brooklyn. In 1963 the family took a trip to Florida and young son Alan helped locate a woman named Leah Lieberman…

Please be warned: The Boxer is not just a testament of atrocity or celebration of the human spirit under the most appalling conditions. It’s also a real world love story where the always-inevitable ultimate reunion does not follow the rules of romantic fiction or bring about a happy ending.

Kleist’s graphic tour de force is supplemented by a stunning gallery of sketches and working drawings, and backed up with a picture-packed essay from sports journalist Martin Krauss.

‘Boxing in concentration camps – a report’ details the long-neglected topic of Nazi sports exhibitions in work and death camps and relates it to Haft’s later professional career in America, including a chilling sidebar on ‘US boxing and the Mafia’. Also on the bill are biographies of other ‘Forgotten champions’ of the camps: Victor “Young” Perez; Noach Klieger; Leendert “Leen” Josua Sanders; Leone “Lelletto” Efrati; Salamo Arouch; Jacko Razon; Johann “Rukelie” Trollman; Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski and Francesco “Kid Francis” Buonagurio.

Potent, powerful, moving and memorable, this is a quest tale well told and one not easily forgotten.
© Text and illustrations 2012 CARLSEN Verlag GmbH, Hamburg, Germany. © Appendix 2012 Martin Krauß and CARLSEN Verlag. English translation © 2021 SelfMadeHero. All rights reserved.

Bootblack 


By Mikaël, translated by Matt Maden (NBM) 
ISBN: 978-1-68112-296-0 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-297-7 

Certain eras and locales perennially resonate with both entertainment consumers and story creators. The Wild West, Victorian London, the trenches of the Somme, and so many more quasi-mythological locales instantly evoke images of drama, tension and tales begging to be told. In these modern times of doom and privation, one of the most evocative is Depression-era America… specifically the Big City… 

Perhaps because it feels so tantalizingly within reach of living memory, or thanks to its cachet as the purported land of promises and untapped opportunity, America has always fascinated storytellers – especially comics-creators – from the “Old World” of Europe. This inclination has delivered many potent and rewarding stories, none more so than this continentally-published yarn by multi-disciplinary, multi award-winning French-born, Québécois auteur and autodidact Mikaël (Giant; Junior l’Aventurier; Rapa Nui, Promise 

Published in Europe by Dargaud in 2018, Bootblack originated as twin albums before being released as a brace of English-language digital tomes courtesy of Europe Comics. It now manifests as an oversized (229 x 305mm), resoundingly resilient hardback edition that gets the entire story done-in-one. 

We open in Germany in 1945 where a weary G.I. pauses on a corpse-covered, crow-ridden battlefield to reflect on how he got there. Once upon a time, his given name was Alternberg: after the German village his family fled to America from. One day in 1929 – even before his tenth birthday – the boy rejected that name and his family; running away from his New York City ghetto hours before tragedy erased it, making him forever an orphan of the streets. 

As “Al”, he grifted and grafted with other homeless kids, mostly making money by shining shoes. His best pal was James “Shiny” Rasmussen and he adored from afar shopkeeper’s daughter Maggie. That ambitious, self-educated go-getter had no time for him, but her mute little brother William – whom everyone else called Buster – was readily accepted by the street kids who eked out a precarious living. 

Their scavenging for every cent was punctuated by clashes with rival kid gangs whose members had grown up as peewee versions of their nostalgically nationalistic, backward-looking elders. Al’s guys considered themselves True Americans, with no ties to some former “old country” that had no time or place for them…  

Al’s life changed again in 1935 when charismatic boy-pickpocket Joseph “Finger Joe” Bazilsky moved into the district. Soon after, Al became Al Chrysler and shoeshine shenanigans grew into errands – and worse – for local hood/entrepreneur Frankie 

Throughout those years, Al pursued Maggie, gradually wearing her down and building a rapport with his constant promises of a dream trip to Coney Island. However, just when he got close enough to learn what made her tick, another clash with the “German” bootblack kids caused the death of someone they all loved.  

Al and Maggie never really had a chance, not with her home life and Joe always somehow in the way at the most inopportune moments… 

Ultimately, the increasingly hostile situation escalated into crisis, inevitably drawing every player into a tragic confrontation prompting more bad decisions and wrong choices, leading to betrayal and a destiny-drenched denouement in a field that could never have been Al’s homeland… 

Told in a clever sequence of overlapping flashbacks – like Christopher Nolan’s Memento – everything about this stylish Depression-era drama is big, powerfully mythic and tragically foredoomed in a truly Shakespearean manner. Packed with period detail and skilfully tapping into the abundance of powerful, socially-aware novels, plays and movies which immortalised pre-WWII America, this collection also includes a gallery of stunning art tableaus at the back of the book.  

Bootblack is moving, memorable and momentous, another triumph of graphic narrative you must not miss. 
© 2019, 2020 Dargaud-Benelux (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.) – Mikaël.    

Boot Black is scheduled for UK release May 19th 2022 and is available for pre-order now. 
Most NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com.

High Crimes 


By Christopher Sebela & Ibrahim Moustafa (Dark Horse) 
ISBN: 978-1-61655-472-9 (HB) 978-1-53431-047-6 (TPB/Digital edition) 

Generally I prefer to go into loads of detail regarding the plot of a book under review but sometimes that’s not possible or even fair. This is definitely one of those occasions… 

High Crimes originated as a 12-part digital comic from writer Christopher Sebela (Screamland: Death of the Party, Captain Marvel, Escape from New York) and artist Ibrahim Moustafa (The Pound: Ghoul’s Night Out, The Flash: Season Zero). It was produced by Monkeybrain Comics and its stunning blend of captivating big-sky concept, seedy suspense thriller and chase-movie blockbuster was just too heady an experience to deny fellow action fans. 

The scintillating serial took the industry by storm; garnering immense praise and loads of award nominations and was on completion collected by Dark Horse in its entirety – along with sidebar stories and a wealth of behind-the-scenes and promotional material – into a splendid hardcover and paperback chronicle for a wider, more traditionally-minded, book-loving audience. 

Once upon a time Suzanne Jensen owned the world. Now she’s an exile eking out a shabby life on its metaphorical roof. When she was a world-famous Olympic snowboarder, medals piled up, but after the authorities discovered their public paragon of perfection was an unrepentant recreational drug abuser, “Zan” went to extraordinary lengths to escape punishment, abandoning everything she knew and loved to avoid giving back those glittering but pointless symbols of former greatness. 

Drifting across the globe, she eventually settled in Kathmandu, working as a fly-by-night, cut-rate guide, living life one pharmaceutical hit and geological challenge at a time. Despite countless promises to herself, however, she never quite made it to the top of the granite goddess dominating the view and attention of everyone around her, native, grifter or spoiled obnoxious tourist… 

She found makework and a fellow damaged soul in aged burn-out Haskell Price, who preys on the families of rich idiots and starry-eyed dreamers risking everything to reach the top of Mount Everest. Haskell is a cold-hearted modern-day graverobber, collecting small personal effects and occasionally recovering the bodies of the many climbers who don’t make it. 

More accurately, he initially rescues just their right hands (for fingerprint identification), strong-arming grieving relatives into handing over cash to retrieve the complete cadaver for decent burial. The mountain takes a ferocious toll on the ever-growing mass of thrill-seeking visitors, and even if only one bereaved family in a handful fall for his proffered “service”, it’s enough to get by… 

Everything changes when he finds a corpse-icle lost for years near the summit. When these particular prints are faxed Stateside it unleashes an avalanche of terror in the form of an ultra-secret, black-ops hit-squad determined to find missing super-agent Sullivan Mars and – most importantly – the still-crucial secrets he absconded with so long ago. Haskell can’t help them when they turn up, since Zan has already swiped Mars’s journal and a canister of microfilm, but when she sees the collateral carnage the cleaner-squad are prepared to inflict, she makes the craziest decision of her life. 

As the merciless operatives force Haskell to lead them on the arduous, weeks-long trek to the summit and Mars’ body, she determines that with no place left to run she’s going to clean up her own mess for once. 

Following the killer elite, Zan resolves to rescue Haskell, or barring that, at least finally get to summit of the overpowering mountain and see the world as it truly is before she dies… 

Mirroring her slow and torturous progress with a succession of shocking revelations from Sullivan’s stolen secrets, and clocking up a startling bodycount, this epic odyssey offers a stupendous and breathtakingly vicarious journey of discovery no armchair adrenaline addict could possibly resist, with an emotional pay-off that is a joy to behold and shock to experience. 

Preceded by an Introduction from Greg Rucka, the compulsively enthralling yarn is complimented by a Bonus Features section including commentary by author Sebela; alternate cover sketches; the 3-page trailer vignette ‘Strange Truths’ from Free Comic Book Day 2014’s ‘Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Defend Comics’; a “declassified” ‘User’s Guide to High Crimes’, loads of character sketches and all the phenomenal, inspired and imaginative promotional postings and briefs issued to rouse interest in the series. 

Epic, arduous and devastatingly addictive, something to treasure for all the right reasons and not just because it’s there… 
High Crimes™ © 2013, 2014 Christopher Sebela & Ibrahim Moustafa. All rights reserved. 

100 Bullets: Book One 


By Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso & various (Vertigo/DC Comics) 
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3201-6 (Deluxe HB) 978-1-4012-5056-0 (TPB/Digital edition) 

What’s your favourite crime movie? TV Show? Novel? Chances are it isn’t 100 Bullets, but trust me, it should be… 

Now that there’s a little distance and the initial furore has died down, it’s time to review one of the most hyped comic sensations of the early 21st century. This initial compilation collects 100 Bullets #1-19 (August 1999- February 2001) and includes a brief tale that first appeared in seasonal anthology Vertigo: Winter’s Edge #3.  

It all begins with eponymous revenge yarn ‘100 Bullets’ 

Isabelle “Dizzy” Cordova is released from prison but isn’t happy. She’s returning to the crime-infested, poverty-wracked streets she came from, dead inside since while she was there her man and her baby boy were killed in a drive-by shooting. 

On the ride back, an old man gets on the train. He looks like a spy from a 1960s movie. Sharp black suit, sunglasses, thin black tie, shiny attaché case: He says he’s Agent Graves. He says he knows all about Dizzy Cordova. He says Hector and Santiago weren’t killed by accident. He says that if she wants to make it right, he has a gun and one hundred rounds of ammunition that will never – EVER – show up in a police investigation. If she wants revenge she can have it free and clear… 

And so begins one of the best crime comics of all time, but this premise, which would surely be enough for five hit seasons on any TV channel, is merely the beginning of a decade-long conspiracy thriller that is dark, engrossing and, after nearly 23 years, still a phenomenal achievement and tribute to the abilities of writer Brian Azzarello and illustrator Eduardo Risso and their loyal accomplices colourists Grant Goleash & Patricia Mulvihill, and letterer Clem Robins. 

After practically constant re-reading, I’m still finding nuggets and gems that confirm its brilliance and the creators’ gift for forward planning and attention to detail. 

Following on from Dizzy’s seemingly self-contained moment of epiphany comes ‘Shot, Water Back’ as we meet a down-on-his-luck barman whose entire life was destroyed by a rich girl’s petty whim. When she walks into his bar one night though, Agent Graves has just walked out, leaving behind him another gleaming attaché case… 

Next follows an 8-page seasonal delight set in a police station. ‘Merry Christmas, Bitches’ is funny and chilling, proving that the short story form is not yet dead, and panel for panel is the best thing in this wonderful, terrifying so-very-adult book. More importantly, the apparent throwaway nature of this brief encounter will have crushing repercussions later on… 

The fascinating proposition of what you would you do with a grudge, a gun, one hundred untraceable bullets and an ironclad guarantee of no comeback is more deeply explored through further seemingly unconnected interactions, consequently but so slowly unravelling the mystery of enigmatic Agent Graves – purveyor of both the ordnance and the inquiry. 

‘Short Con, Long Odds’ introduces hard luck kid Chucky Spinks, a cheap grifter and ex-con who gets a visit from the cadaverous Man in Black. Chucky’s life was ruined when he got drunk and killed some kids: but at least his friend Pony always looked out for him when he got out of prison. Still, what kind of friend would drag your drunken ass out of the passenger seat and behind the steering wheel before the cops show up…  and never tell you? 

In ‘Day, Hour, Minute… Man’ we gain some insight into the manipulative Graves’ long-term goals as he engineers gang-war to draw some old comrades back into his game. There are intriguing hints of an old crew and some very high-powered bosses – operating as “The Trust” – after contact is made with brutal mob enforcer Lono and someone wonders out loud if somebody is reviving something called “the Minutemen”… 

‘The Right Ear, Left in the Cold’ then finds ice-cream vendor Cole Burns – who sells more than popsicles from his van – shocked to discover that his current boss torched an old folks’ home where Cole’s grandmother died. That’s just the start of a vicious round of revelations before Cole is revealed as another “retired” Minuteman. It looks like someone’s putting the band back together… 

A viscerally satisfying one-off story follows as a waitress gets an unwelcome heads-up about her happy home in the chilling ‘Heartbreak, Sunnyside Up’ 

Dizzy Cordova resurfaces next: bundled off to Paris to meet American ex-pat Mr. Branch: a reporter who once dug too deep and uncovered the greatest secret in US history. ‘Parlez Kung Vous’ begins unpicking the mysteries of the Trust, the Minutemen, and especially Agent Graves in a brutal yet delicate manner, engrossing and satisfying: yet manages the magician’s trick of leaving a bigger puzzle and readers hungry for the next instalment. In the meantime though, Dizzy learns some secrets and gets on the job training to die for… 

The best crime comic in decades oh-so-slowly begins transforming itself into the best conspiracy thriller in the business with ‘Hang Up on the Hang Low’ as further hints about The Trust and their unique police squad The Minutemen slip out during the dark, bleak story of Louis “Loop” Hughes, a young street tough swiftly going the way of most of his kind in the streets of Philadelphia… at least until impeccable Agent Graves turns up. He knows exactly where Loop’s father has been for the embittered kid’s entire life, but he’s only telling about the last few years… 

Curtis Hughes collects debts for one of the nastiest old loan-sharks in Philly. The broken down old leg-breaker has been around and seen it all, but wasn’t expecting a street punk to stick one of those guns in his face – and certainly not the son he abandoned all those years ago. Against all odds, he reconciles with his son and starts teaching him business and life; but once family duty and work allegiances come into conflict, there’s only ever one outcome. And just how does Curtis know about Graves and the Minutemen? As always, where Graves has been, lives change, bodies drop and more undisclosed secrets are uncovered… 

The story portion of this book concludes with some scene-setting character portraits as ‘Epilogue for a Road Dog’ sees Loop reconnect with Agent Graves whilst wild card Lono discovers an unsuspected connection with the young gangbangers cousin Carlos. As Graves moves his pieces in a vast but still undeclared game unlikely alliances are forged in anticipation of a coming conflict… 

Rounding out this extremely adult entertainment is ‘Dossier’: a sketchbook by Eduardo Risso offering early character designs of the broad and diverse castoff reprobates thus far embroiled in the unfolding saga… 

These tense, bleak opening dramas have the generational grandeur of The Godfather trilogy, as much febrile resonance as The Wire and more punch than Goodfellas: weaving a tragic tapestry of family, disillusionment and overwhelming necessity, and although readers of the original comic books didn’t know it, laid much of the groundwork for the “Big Reveals” to come.  

Astoundingly accessible and readable in its own right, this gripping tome is just step one on a path of intricate mystery and intrigue: one no fiction-fan (grown-up, paid-up and immune to harsh language and rude behaviour) could resist… nor should you. The slick switch from crime comic to conspiracy thriller is made with superb skill, with no diminution of the extreme violence and seedy sexuality that are hallmarks of this uncompromising series. Savage, brilliantly executed and utterly addictive, this is a landmark book in a landmark series. 
© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2014 Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. 

The Set-Up


By
Joseph Moncure March illustrated by Erik Kriek (Korero Press)
ISBN: 978-1-91274-008-6 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-91274-012-3 

I’ve never understood boxing as a sport. Where I come from, you don’t hit people for money or fame but because you don’t like them, have a grievance with them or because they’re a member of the Tory Cabinet. I suppose that’ s pretty much the same thing these days. 

However, it’s an indisputable fact that for billons of humans over thousands of years, pugilism in its various forms has captivated, enthralled and on rare occasion, enhanced the lives of those both participating and spectating.  

Entire sub-cultures have embraced the Fight Game and it has in return elevated a few (some actual combatants, but a far greater number of managers, promoters and – disturbingly – “owners” of society’s officially sanctioned domestic gladiators) to positions of wealth and power. Many love to watch and many more are irresistibly drawn to compete…  

Despite – or more likely because of – modern rules and legal oversight the industry is apparently not as flagrantly in the pockets of crime bosses as in its early golden years, but once upon a time in the mid-20th century Boxing matches were the great leveller: drawing hoods and heroes, media stars and mobster scum, intellectuals and imbeciles… 

In 1928, white Jazz Age poet and essayist Joseph Moncure March wrote a highly successful and influential long-form poem about boxing that stripped away much of the glamour by focussing on the criminality and poverty-driven desperation that underpinned it.  

March was a war veteran, a college protégé of Robert Frost and first managing editor of The New Yorker, and infamous for his other poem. Bawdy, antisocial, deliberatively provocative and shocking, The Wild Party took three years to find a publisher. The Set-Up was similarly divisive and influential. You can find all you need to know about the odes and their author in Masha Thorpe’s brilliantly informative and erudite Introduction which combines appraisal and appreciation with history lesson in a critical biography of the pioneering poet. It also candidly discusses the major bone of contention this uncompromising revival will  stir up: Race.   

Protagonist Pansy Jones is an ex-con, over the hill fighter: an old Negro grateful for one final chance at a payoff against a younger, fitter, tougher opponent. It’s his last bout and he wants to go out with pride and dignity. Sadly, the match is fixed, but his crooked promoters have opted not to tell him and kept his portion of the pay-off for themselves… 

It sounds cliched now, but that’s because the printed poem was a monster hit during the Depression Era, spawning countless swipes and a popular but utterly bowdlerised 1947 noir film adaptation which omitted the uncompromising elements of commonplace bigotry the saga wallows in.  

Although in 1947 the author strenuously protested the replacement of Pansy with a white fighter, when The Set-Up was rereleased in 1968, March himself “de-nationalized” the tale, removing the brooding racial tensions and character that carried the original. 

What we have here now is the restored original text which wallows in grime, crime and poverty with fully-realized, universally grotesque, sordid and unsavoury characters all taking their piece of the action from desperate men pummelling each other for other people’s callous gratification… 
The tale is told in relentless rhyme and pitiless beats presaging modern Hip Hop culture: brutal, bleak, repetitive; glorifying another kind of gang culture and clinging to the notion of a last chance to win if you are man enough. This is dawn-era storytelling with classical themes delivered as primordial Rap in its purest, most primal form: drenched with aggression, hostility, nihilism, misogyny, explicit but accepted racism and, always, frustrated hope. 

March eschews conventional stanzas for explosive couplets, displaying verbal virtuosity and building scene-setting mood through a driving beat and mesmerising rhythm. Visually they are delivered in this edition like blows, laid in typographic blasts in clinches with starkly effective illustration cunningly informed by the works of graphic genius Will Eisner. 

The art is astounding, crafted by a modern master with his head firmly set towards past times. 

Amsterdam-born Erik Kriek (In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads; silent superhero spoof Gutsman; Little Andy Roid; Welcome to Creek Country; Mika, the Little Bear That Didn’t Want to Go To Sleep) is a graduate of the Rietveld Academy for Art and Design and an in-demand illustrator of books – such as Holland’s Tolkien and Harry Potter editions – magazines, apparel, skateboards, ad infinitum.  

As well as being a musical historian and afficionado, he can turn his hand to many visual styles and graphic disciplines. Gutsman was reconceived as a soundless mime ballet in 2006 and his collection of Lovecraft adaptations Het onzienbare, en andere verhalen H. P. Lovecraft has been republished in many languages… 

Here he again extends his artistic range and demonstrates chiaroscuric virtuosity and versatility in the resurrection of a landmark of American poetry and precursor of noir sensibilities that has, in its own way, also reshaped the landscape of modern popular culture. You already know the story from a hundred other sources, so I’m not saying more, but I will share a few interior pages… 

Restored and beautifully augmented by stunning potent imagery, The Set-Up is a found classic addressing issues we still all struggle with and is a contest you must see.
© 2022 Korero Press Ltd. All rights reserved. 

The Set -Up will be published on April 21st 2022 and is available for pre-order now. 

Moon Knight


By Gregg Hurwitz & Jerome Opeña & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4106-8 (TPB/Digital editions)

Moon Knight is probably one of the most complex and convoluted heroes in comics. There’s also a lot of evidence to support the in-world contention that he’s a certifiable loon…

He first appeared during the 1970s horror boom: a mercenary Batman knockoff hired by corporate villains to capture lycanthropic Jack Russell (AKA Werewolf by Night). Catching the readers’ attention, he then spun off into two trial issues of Marvel Spotlight and an exceedingly mature (for the times) back-up slot in TV-inspired Hulk Magazine before graduating to a number of solo series.

His byzantine origin eventually revealed how multiple-personality afflicted CIA spook-turned-mercenary Marc Spector was murdered by his best-pal and comrade Raoul Bushman, and apparently restored to life by Egyptian deity Khonshu: god of the Moon and Justice, or perhaps simply Vengeance…

Over many years the solitary avenger and a select band of hand-picked helpers battled darker threats more flamboyant superheroes neglected or avoided, ever-vacillating between pristine white knight and bloodthirsty killer-with-a-good-excuse…

At the time of this rocket-paced riot of action and suspense, resurgent villain and American Security Czar Norman Osborn was de facto ruler of America, using Federal clout to wage war on heroes who refused to sign The Superhuman Registration Act. Those he couldn’t coerce or crush, he smeared…

As Moon Knight became more obviously frenzied and manic, Osborn framed the outlaw hero for murder and numerous ferocious atrocities and – in response to seemingly overwhelming opposition – the “out-of-control” hero faked his own death, moved to Mexico and went about cleansing his ravaged mind and troubled soul.

The first and hardest part of the remedy was eradicating every vestige of Marc Spector from his wardrobe of personalities…

Re-presenting Vengeance of the Moon Knight #1-6 (November 2009-May 2010), this spectacular breakneck thriller opens with the return of ‘The White Knight’ to New York City; (mostly) clear-headed and determined to reclaim his name and sullied reputation. That begins with an extremely public foiling of a brutally violent bank robbery, where, despite utmost provocation and the watching citizenry’s fervent expectations, the silent Avenger kills absolutely no one…

Astonished observers – including the hero’s former lover and confidante Marlene Alraune – would have been even more astonished to learn that throughout the shocking struggle, a little godling had been whispering in Moon Knight’s ear…
Khonshu is displeased. He wants his chosen agent exacting full and final vengeance and grows increasingly impatient over this sacrilegious “no killing” peccadillo…

Nights pass and Moon Knight, hunted by cops and Osborn’s agents alike, prowls the streets, quietly thinning out predators feeding on society’s weakest members. His diligent pruning is interrupted when the most powerful of Osborn’s super-operatives appears…

‘The Sentry’s Curse’ is that he is nigh-omnipotent, truly crazy and utterly unpredictable. As an old comrade, the golden giant grants Moon Knight a measure of leeway and one last chance, but Osborn is less sanguine about being defied: ordering mystic minion The Hood and telepathic snoop Profile to find and decisively deal with the returned rebel.

Now favouring his Jake Lockley and Steven Grant personas, the repentant paladin is visiting old associates and comrades whilst using vast financial resources to upgrade Moon Knight’s armoury. Moreover, as an outlaw, he has no problem employing the best criminal scientists money can buy…

The first felonious monster to fall to his renewed crusade is grotesque sin-peddler The Slug, and once again the cataclysmic clash is punctuated by his divine passenger screaming in his ear for blood. That distraction might be why the hero doesn’t notice Profile taking a reading and extracting the one secret that could end his ceaseless war on crime…

After tolerating years of appalling atrocities, Moon Knight eventually killed his greatest enemy and, in a fit of madness, cut off his fright-mask of a face. Now, thanks to the psychic’s reading and The Hood’s dark magic, the one foe Spector could never handle is dragged howling from his grave to pick up where he left off in ‘The Bushman Cometh’

The resurrected psychotic hits the ground scheming and whilst Moon Knight wastes time trying to convince Spider-Man that’s he’s back – but is also better – Raoul orchestrates a bloody raid on horrific psychiatric sin-bin Ravencroft Asylum.

With fellow maniac Scarecrow, Bushman turns an institution full of criminal madmen into murderous slaves: even augmenting his army of the living damned with autonomous, atrocious menaces such as Herman the German and The Great Wall

Never reticent, Bushman then unleashes his foul forces on sleeping Manhattan in the sure and certain knowledge that unremitting carnage and slaughter is bound to bring Moon Knight running…

With the city under siege even Spector’s oldest – and most betrayed – friend sees the need for action, and with “Frenchie” Du Champ once again piloting the awe-inspiring Moon Copter, the resurgent Knight takes on the entire legion of loons with devastating if non-lethal force under an unforgiving ‘Full Moon’

The battle enters overwhelming overdrive in ‘Past is Prologue’ as Bushman at last confronts his ultimate antithesis. Chaos escalates and the screaming of Khonshu for his chosen one to cross back over the line and fulfil his blood-letting destiny is almost too much for any mortal to resist.

…And even after resoundingly defeating his physical foes and restoring some semblance of sense to the city the gory god still calls and, at last, ‘Knight Falls’

With covers by Leinil Francis Yu and 8 stunning variants by Alex Ross, David Finch, Yu and Francesco Mattina, this explosive all-out psycho-thriller is compellingly scripted by Gregg Hurwitz and captivatingly illustrated by Jerome Opeña, Jay Leisten & Paul Mounts who collaboratively create one of the most memorable and enjoyable reboots ever.

Fast, dark and savagely entertaining, Shock and Awe is pure electric entertainment for testosterone junkies and Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics – and a relatively uncomplicated introduction to the character currently bewildering TV streaming service viewers…
© 2009, 2010 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Trent volume 3: When the Lamps are Lit


By Rodolphe & Léo with colour by Marie-Paule Alluard, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-836-4 (Album PB)

I’m thinking about relationships and romance at the moment, and comics have always explored pair-bonds as a fundamental aspect of any genre they exploit. It’s not always about simple attainment of a dream either. Sometimes, failure and the loss of love is more powerful, rewarding and/or entertaining than “True Love Ways”. The attendant emotion certainly has generated some astoundingly moving fiction…

European comics audiences have long been fascinated with the mythologised American experience, whether it be the Big Sky Wild West or later eras of crime-riddled, gangster-fuelled dramas. They also have a vested historical interest in the northernmost parts of the New World which has resulted in some pretty cool graphic extravaganzas.

Léo is actually Brazilian artist and storymaker Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira Filho: born in Rio de Janeiro on December 13th, 1944. Attaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Puerto Alegre in 1968, he was a government employee for three years, until forced to flee the country because of his political views. While a military dictatorship ran Brazil, he lived in Chile and Argentina before illegally returning to his homeland in 1974. To survive, he worked as a designer/graphic artist in Sao Paulo and created his first comics art for O Bicho magazine.

In 1981 he migrated to Paris, seeking to pursue a career in Bande Dessinée, and found work with Pilote and L’Echo des Savanes as well as more advertising and graphics fare. The big break came when Jean-Claude Forest invited him to draw stories for Okapi which led to regular illustration work for Bayard Presse. In 1988 Léo began his long association with scripter and scenarist Rodolphe D. Jacquette – AKA Rodolphe.

His prolific, celebrated writing partner has been a giant of comics since the 1970s: a Literature graduate who transitioned from teaching and running libraries to creating poetry and writing criticism, novels, biographies, children’s stories and music journalism. In 1975, after meeting Jacques Lob, he expanded his portfolio to write for a vast number of artists and strip illustrators in magazines ranging from Pilote and Circus to À Suivre and Métal Hurlant. Amongst his most successful endeavours are Raffini (with Ferrandez) and L’Autre Monde (Florence Magnin) but his collaborations in all genres and age ranges are too numerous to list here.

In 1991 he began working with Léo on a period adventure series of the far north. Taciturn, introspective and fiercely driven Royal Canadian Mounted Police sergeant Philip Trent premiered in L’Homme Mort, forging a lonely path through the 19th century Dominion over eight tempestuous, hard-bitten albums between then and 2000. He also prompted the collaborators’ later fantasy classics Kenya (and its spin-offs), Centaurus and Porte de Brazenac.

Cast very much in the classic adventure mould perfected by Jack London and John Buchan, Trent is a man of few words, deep thoughts and unyielding principles who gets the job done whilst stifling emotional turmoil boiling deep within him, but is the very embodiment of the phrase “still waters run deep”…

As ‘Quand S’allument Les Lampes’, this third adventure comes from 1993, with the solitary man and his faithful hound “Dog” trudging into and through another snow-wrapped town (stunning rendered as always by Leo) to eventually make camp alone in the frozen woods beyond. His thoughts dwell on the warm loving families therein, and wander back, as they always will, to Agnes.

He had saved her – but not her brother – and was given a clear invitation that he had never acted upon. Now, under the cold stars, he makes a decision. Applying for leave, he travels to Providence with marriage in mind, but on arrival finds a dilapidated, empty house and learns that his Miss St. Yves had reached the same conclusion years ago… and with another man…

Shaken and crushed, he finds a saloon and picks up a whisky glass…

Weeks later, a penniless broken staggering shambles, he plagues the barkeeps of a nameless frontier railtown, pitied and despised by residents as they go about their business and try to avoid the rummy in the gutter.

Howling constantly with desolated loss, Trent’s only human connection is bar girl Mary Lou, but he is blind to her more than Christian interest. Wendley City is all bustle and terror. The railway will bring wealth – and is already reaping dividends – but it’s also drawn out human wolves. Seemingly invisible outlaws dubbed “the Coalmen” have targeted elderly residents for months, cruelly torturing and killing to extract the savings of the weakest townsfolk…

After another night of atrocity, an outraged posse manages to wound a suspect before losing him. The fugitive hides under the stoop drunken sot Trent is slumped on, and in gratitude offers the despised reprobate a job if he has the stomach for bad business and can sober up…

The final act contains a brutal denouement and reveals a cunning and extended undercover scheme to catch the Coalmen, but one that turned on the implacable Mountie’s honest despair and deadly near all-consuming brush with loss and loneliness…

Mission accomplished, the quiet man returns to duty and the wastelands he patrols to preserve the safety of the families he cannot find a way to join…

Another beguiling and introspective voyage of internal discovery, where environment and locales are as much lead characters as hero and foe, When the Lamps are Lit offers suspense, action, drama and poignant evocation in a compelling confection that will appeal to any fan of widescreen cinematic crime fiction or epic western drama.
Original edition © Dargaud Editeur Paris 1993 by Rodolphe & Léo. All rights reserved. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

Pow! Annual 1971


By unknown writers & artists and Miguel Quesada Cerdán, Vicente Ibáñez Sanchis, José Ortiz Moya, Matías Alonso, Enric Badia Romero, Eustaquio Segrelles del Pilar, Leopoldo Ortiz & various (Odhams Books)
SBN: 60039607X

This quirky item is one of my fondest childhood memories and quite inspirational in directing my career path, and as well as being still a surprisingly splendid read I can now see it as a bizarre and desperately belated sales experiment…

By the end of the 1960s, DC Thomson had overtaken the monolithic comics publishing giant that had been created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century. The company – variously named Fleetway, Odhams and IPC – had absorbed rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press, and stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad they had kept their material contemporary, if not fresh, but the writing was on the wall, but now

the comedy strip was on the rise and action anthologies were finding it hard to keep readers attention.

By 1970 – when this annual was released – the trend generated by the success of the Batman TV show was thoroughly dead, so why release a book of all-new superhero strips in a title very much associated with comedy features and cheap Marvel Comics reprints?

A last ditch attempt to revive the genre? Perhaps a cheap means of using up inventory?

I don’t know and I don’t care. What they produced that year was a wonderful capsule of fanboy delight, stuffed with thrills, colourful characters and a distinctly cool, underplayed stylishness, devoid of the brash histrionics of American comic books.

Conceived by tragically uncredited writers – but purportedly all created by Alan Hebden – this is a visual delight illustrated in alternating full colour (painted) and half-colour (black and magenta) sections by IPC’s European stable of artists: some of the greatest artists of the era, and delivered in a thoroughly different and grittily dark take on extraordinary champions, costumed crimebusters and the uncanny unknown…

The wonderment kicked off with ‘Magno, Man of Magnetism’ drawn by Miguel Quesada Cerdán: a valiant crimecrusher who seemed a cross between Simon Templar and James Bond, who donned his mask and used his superpowers only if things got really rough…

Eerily off-kilter sea scourge ‘Aquavenger’ was an oceanic crimefighter illustrated by The Victor veteran Vicente Ibáñez Sanchis, while ‘Mr. Tomorrow: Criminal of the Future’ – illustrated by jack of all genres Matías (Air Ace, Battle Action, Commando, The Victor, Twinkle) Alonso was an outright rebel from an oppressive state in days to come.

I don’t know who wrote or drew edgy, self-contained thriller ‘The Hunter and the Hunted’, but ‘Electro’ (no relation to the Marvel villain – other than the high-voltage shtick) is gloriously rendered by the legendary José Ortiz Moya (Caroline Baker, Barrister at Law; Smokeman; UFO Agent; The Phantom Viking; Commando Picture Library; BattlePicture Library; Vampirella; The Thirteenth Floor; Rogue Trooper; Tex Willer, Judge Dredd and many more).

In the most  traditional tale of the book, Eddie Edwards defends Surf City, USA as a voltaic vigilante and as part of the hero-heavy Super Security Bureau defeating terrors such as the crystalline marauders on view here…

Limned by future Modesty Blaise and Axa illustrator Enric Badia Romero, the fascinating psionic super-squad ‘Esper Commandos’ infiltrate and eliminate the competition before urban hunter ‘Marksman’ deals with a deadly saboteur and faux vengeful spectre ‘The Phantom’ (again no relation to any US star and illustrated by watercolours specialist Eustaquio Segrelles del Pilar) hands out summary justice decked out in a spooky uniform loaded with cunning gadgets…

We dip into the mind of a monster when aquatic horror ‘Norstad of the Deep’ – illustrated by Leopoldo Ortiz – invades the upper world but revert to heroic adventure for closing yarn ‘Time Rider’. Rendered by Ibáñez, it details how a bored genius millionaire builds a time-travelling robot horse and goes in search of adventure…

These are all great little adventures, satisfactorily self-contained, beautiful and singularly British in tone, even though most of the characters are American – or aliens (and no, that’s not necessarily the same thing). This tome easily withstands a critical rereading today, but the most important thing is the inspiring joy of these one-off wannabes. They certainly prompted me to fill sketchbook after sketchbook and determined that I would neither be a “brain surgeon nor a bloke wot goes down sewers in gumboots”. This great little tome gave me that critical push towards the fame and fortune I now enjoy, and could probably do it again!
© 1970 The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

Calling Dick Tracy!™ volume 1


By Mike Curtis, Joe Staton & various (Rabbit Hole)
ISBN: 978-0-930645-11-0 (digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Brilliant Fun and the Only Way to Make Crime Pay… 8/10

Time for another anniversary celebration. Here’s a superb collection crying out for revival in either physical or digital forms. Time to agitate against the publishing powers-that-be, I think…

All in all, comics have a pretty good track record for creating household names. We could play the game of picking the most well-known fictional (or is that “meta”, now?) characters on Earth – usually topped by Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Batman and Tarzan – and supplement the list with Popeye, Blondie, Charlie Brown, Tintin,Spider-Man, Garfield, and – not so much now, but once, most definitely – Dick Tracy

At the height of the Great Depression cartoonist Chester Gould sought fresh strip ideas. The story goes that as a decent guy incensed by the exploits of gangsters like Al Capone – who monopolised the front pages of contemporary newspapers – the doughty doodler settled upon the only way a normal man could fight thugs: Passion and Public Opinion…

Raised in Oklahoma, Gould was a Chicago resident who hated seeing his home town in the grip of such wicked men, with far too many honest citizens beguiled by the gangsters’ charisma. He decided to pictorially get it off his chest with a procedural crime thriller that championed the ordinary cops who protected civilisation.

He took his proposal – “Plainclothes Tracy” – to Captain Joseph Patterson, the legendary newspaperman and strips Svengali whose golden touch had already blessed strips like The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Winnie Winkle, Smilin’ Jack, Moon Mullins and Terry and the Pirates among others. Casting his gifted eye on the work, Patterson promptly renamed the hero Dick Tracy, whilst also revising his love interest into steady, steadfast girlfriend Tess Truehart.

The daily series launched on October 4th 1931 through Patterson’s own Chicago Tribune Syndicate, growing quickly into a phenomenon and monumental hit, with all the attendant media and merchandising hoopla that follows. Bolstered by toys, games, movies, serials, animated features, TV shows et al, the strip soldiered on, influencing generations of creators and entertaining millions of fans. Gould unfailingly wrote and drew the strip for decades until retirement in 1977.

The legendary lawman was a landmark creation who influenced not simply comics but the entirety of American popular fiction. Its signature use of baroque villains, outrageous crimes and fiendish death-traps pollinated the work of numerous strips (most notably Batman), shows and movies since then, whilst the indomitable Tracy’s studied, measured use – and startlingly accurate predictions – of crimefighting technology and techniques gave the world a taste of cop thrillers, police procedurals and forensic mysteries such as CSI decades before the current fascination took hold.

As with many creators in it for the long haul, the revolutionary 1960s were a harsh time for established cartoonists. Along with Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Gould’s grizzled gangbuster especially foundered in a social climate of radical change where popular slogans included “Never trust anybody over 21” and “Smash the Establishment”.

The strip’s momentum faltered, perhaps as much from the move towards science fiction (Tracy went off-Earth into space and the character Moon Maid was introduced) as the improbable, Bond-movie-style villains or its perceived “old-fashioned” attitudes. Even the introduction of more minority and women characters and hippie cop Groovy Groovecouldn’t stop the rot. However, the feature soldiered on regardless…

When Gould retired in 1977, 29-year old author Max Allen Collins (Road to Perdition Nathan Heller, Mike Mist, Ms. Tree) won the prestigious role as scripter, promptly taking the series back to its crime-busting roots for a breathtaking run, ably assisted by Gould as consultant with his chief artistic assistant Rick Fletcher promoted to full illustrator.

After 11 years, in 1992 Collins was removed and replaced by Mike Kilian – who apparently worked for half the up-&-coming author’s price – until his death in October 2005, whereafter Dick Locher took over story and art, with assistant Jim Brozman assuming drawing duties from March 2009. On January 19th 2011, Tribune Media Services announced Locher’s retirement and replacement by a new team. That’s where this digital only book begins…

Incredibly versatile artist and inker Joe Staton (E-Man, Mike Mauser, The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, Legion of Super-Heroes) has been an integral part of American comic books since the early 1970s and in later years made kids comics his metier. During a spectacular run on licensed classic Scooby Doo, he and series scripter Mike Curtis (Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Shanda the Panda) discovered a mutual love for Dick Tracy and – mostly for their own amusement – created a tribute strip entitled Major Crime Squad.

How that landed them the duty of continuing the ultimate cop’s official adventures is addressed in introductory text feature ‘Publisher’s Note – aka “The Dick Tracy vs. Major Crime Squad Caper”’ by Steve Tippie (VP of Licensing, TMS News & Features, LLC) before a stunning chronological re-presentation of this all-new classic begins

Preceding those comic capers are more text-based insights and revelations: a Foreword by Mike Gold; former sheriff Curtis’ ‘How We Got the Job’ (supplemented by samples done in 2005 when they first tried to take on the strip) and Staton’s ‘Waiting For Dick Tracy’

Next up is a brief visual refresher course of ‘Tracy and His Allies’ and the most nefarious of the repeat offenders in a ‘Rogues Gallery’ before the war on crime resumes in ‘Flyface and the Fifth Return’.

The strip has sadly long passed its heady glory days of mass sales, but that’s more about the death of print periodicals than this material. It still appears in a number of papers and as a potent online presences which means every episode is in full colour, with half-page Sunday strips still offering extras such as the ‘Crimestoppers Textbook’. One welcome addition is full credits so we can thank Shelley Pleger and Shane Fisher for their inks, colours and lettering…

The plot sees the long separated traditional squad fully reunited to combat right wing terrorism and gradually reintroduced to the fanciful gadgets and controversial space tech after Tracy’s inventor pal Diet Smith gets in touch. A disgruntled former employee has stolen plans for his energy-beam weapon “Thor’s Hammer”…

After selling it to old lags Flyface and the Fifth – who kidnap officer Lizz Worthington to set a trap for their old nemesis – events spiral out of control, but only the wicked pay the final price this time…

Longtime comedy characters B.O. Plenty and his wife Gravel Gertie resurface, celebrating the birth of their second child – the ugliest boy on earth! – and falling foul of a manipulative foodie TV celebrity who sees a chance to own the airwaves with the stomach-churning infant in ‘Flakey Biscuits Makes the Dough’. Sadly, her bribing gifts to the couple include a shipment of cocaine being secretly couriered by her assistant Hot Rize and soon bodies start dropping as the city’s  top drug lord seeks his missing product. Once Tracy realises what’s what, it’s all over bar the shooting…

‘Doubleup and the Scarlet Sting’ features the making of a movie starring a fictional superhero and how childhood fan and modern-day gangster Doubleup barges in: infiltrating the cast to shakedown the production. Soon he’s too involved and after murdering his girlfriend all that’s left is being caught facing real-world justice…

At this time alternate Sunday extra ‘Tracy’s Hall of Fame’ – celebrating police officers – began, days before an officially deceased and clearly incorrigible arch enemy reappeared in ‘B-B Eyes and Honeymoon’. When Tracy’s adopted son Junior goes undercover to investigate a video piracy ring, the case soon involves the old cop’s granddaughter too, when Honeymoon Tracy tries to help out and almost dies because of her enthusiasm and lack of training. Almost…

With the comics component concluded, there’s more informational extras to enjoy as Curtis offers ‘Dick Tracy vs. the Villains: A Comparison’ and we meet the creators in ‘Joe Staton’s Bio’, ‘Mike Curtis’ Bio’ and ‘Team Tracy Bios’ to end this initial casebook – hopefully the first of many.

Dick Tracy has always been a fantastically readable feature and this potent return to first principles is a terrific way to ease yourself into his stark, no-nonsense, Tough Love, Hard Justice world.

Comics just don’t get better than this…
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